All night long at the Sakhir Grand Prix it looked like Formula 1 was going to crown a new winner. And it did – but not the one which seemed set to clinch victory as the race headed into its final quarter.George Russell, in a remarkable performance on his first appearance for Mercedes, led proceedings right up until the moment they wrecked his race by putting the wrong tyres on his car.
That opened the way for a result which was every bit as remarkable: Sergio Perez, in his penultimate race before being dropped by Racing Point, with no drive secured for 2021, running an old power unit after losing a podium finish four laps from home last week due to an MGU-K failure, and having fallen to last on the first lap of the race, scored a shock victory.
Russell snatches lead for Bottas
Valtteri Bottas had narrowly denied his new team mate pole position. But his advantage did not last long.
“The initial part of the start was OK,” he explained. “I hit the clutch target as planned.
“But then suddenly I had a spike of wheelspin, still for unknown reasons. It could be a torque spike or something. But just before the first-to-second shift I had a downgraded shift to the second gear so I lost momentum. That’s to be reviewed. [It] is really unfortunate, obviously.”
That hesitation allowed Russell, who had fumbled the controls on his unfamiliar Mercedes at times during practice, even selecting neutral at one point during qualifying, to slip up the inside and take the lead. And he drew ahead immediately when Bottas twitched wide at turn two.
“Being in the dirty air, with the tail wind and everything, I had a bit of a snap,” said Bottas.
They raced past the scene of Romain Grosjean’s shocking crash from one week earlier without incident, but that changed when they reached turn four. Sergio Perez had drawn along Bottas on his outside and Max Verstappen, eyeing a move between the pair of them, wisely backed out of it, opting for a run out of the right-hander.
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Charging onto the scene came Charles Leclerc, who’d brilliantly qualified his Ferrari in fourth place, but not for the first time this year made a wildly over-optimistic move on the first lap which backfired. He snatched a brake and knocked Perez into a spin.
Leclerc’s car was sufficiently damaged that he retired on the spot. He also forced Verstappen to take evasive action, but he ran too wide in the run-off area and thumped a barrier. The pair who had shared the second row of the grid were both out, Verstappen fuming at Leclerc’s misjudgement.
The Safety Car was summoned while Perez dragged his Racing Point back onto the track, now last of the remaining 18 cars. “I think it’s a bit not straight, the car,” he told his team on the radio, “but it doesn’t seem to be too bad.”
Russell edges clear
When the race restarted on lap six Russell showed his team mate a clean pair of heels and Bottas was passed, temporarily, by Carlos Sainz Jnr. The McLaren driver repeated Bottas’s mistake of running wide at turn two, relinquishing the position.
Russell managed his lead as if he hadn’t spent most of the season mired in the lower end of the field. By the 30th lap, on a track where lap times took less than a minute, he had a three second margin.
Bottas was finding it hard to get any closer. “The first stint was quite a mystery for me,” he said. “I decided to go with less front flap for the first part but I think it was maybe not ideal. For turn four, turn seven-eight, I was struggling quite a bit with the front end of the car.
“So I struggled to really get close. It seemed to be actually a difficult track to follow at. Once you were within three seconds you were always drifting into the corner.”
Only the Mercedes drivers had been able to get through Q2 on the medium tyres, leaving everyone to again wonder why a rule which only ever serves to increase the advantage of the quicker cars has remained in the regulations for so long. Sainz came in to get rid of his softs on lap 28, promoting Daniel Ricciardo, who did the same on the next lap.
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Russell hung on until lap 45 – past half-distance in the 87-lap race – while Bottas went four laps further, accepting the time loss at this stage in the hope of banking a performance advantage after they switched to hards.
Bottas was eight-and-a-half seconds behind his team mate when he emerged from the pits, but said the hard tyre felt “a lot better”. He began cutting into Russell’s lead, aided by a Virtual Safety Car period when Nicholas Latifi retired, gaining almost two seconds through a better management of the interruption.
“In the second stint I was catching him at a pretty decent rate,” said Bottas. “So I knew everything was still going to be open and that most likely we were going to have a good battle.
“So nothing really unexpected there: He obviously did a mistake-free race, but nothing unexpected. I still knew that everything was still to play for, especially towards the end of the stint on hard tyres.”
By lap 60 his progress had slowed. Russell had encountered problems with his power unit (strictly speaking, Lewis Hamilton’s power unit, albeit on loan like the rest of the car) which a few quick switch changes addressed. The gap between them dipped under five seconds.
Mercedes may have dismissed the idea that Bottas and Russell were in a “shoot out” for a 2022 drive, but when asked by RaceFans before the weekend began Bottas admitted “it wouldn’t look so good on me if I have a normal race and if he beats me fair and square.” That was the outcome he was heading towards on lap 62. Then something happened which drastically changed the course of the race.
Aitken’s error lays trap for Mercedes
In a bizarre coincidence, it was Russell’s substitute at Williams, Jack Aitken, who inadvertently set in motion the series of events which cost the Mercedes driver victory. Aitken was edging towards Kevin Magnussen ahead of him when he ran too wide at the final corner and swiped the barrier, dropping his front wing on the track.
After initially calling a Virtual Safety Car period, race control realised a full Safety Car deployment was necessary. Mercedes’ drivers could have run to the end on their hard rubber, but they had no reason to pass up an essentially free switch to fresher tyres. Both drivers were summoned in, but it was a desperately late call for Russell, and in the ensuing confusion he was sent out of the pits with two of Bottas’s tyres fitted.
In response, Mercedes sent Bottas on his way after re-fitting his worn and, now, cold hard tyres. Russell had to come back in for fresh rubber, but was at least able to take the more suitable mediums. Luckily for Mercedes the stewards considered the infringement an unprecedented infraction and spared Russell a sporting penalty, fining the team €20,000 instead.
Now the race had a completely different complexion. Perez was leading: Having been last, he switched to mediums before the first restart, picked off seven cars in the first five laps when the race originally resumed, used his harder tyres to gain from two-stoppers like Sainz and Ricciardo, and passed both his team mate Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon.
The order therefore was Perez, Ocon, Stroll (who nearly hit the Renault at the restart) and Bottas. Next came Russell, who clearly remained a threat on his fresh and softer rubber. When the race began again on lap 68 he was straight onto his team mate’s tail. Bottas was struggling on his cold tyres.
“That was a nightmare,” he recalled. “Being on the old hard that already lost a bit of temperature in the pit stop against the guys with fresh mediums I was like a sitting duck.”
He went deep at turn four, handing Russell the initiative, and he swept by on the bumpy outside line at turn six. Even given the mitigating circumstances, this was ‘bad optics’ for number 77.
Pressing on, Russell relieved Stroll and Ocon of their positions in consecutive laps. As lap 73 began there was 3.4 seconds of clear air between him and Perez in a race to decide which would score their first win. But again, something happened which drastically changed the course of the race.
On lap 77 Russell stopped making progress in his pursuit of Perez. His left-rear tyre didn’t feel right. A slow puncture was diagnosed; incredibly, the third for the team in two races at the track, following Bottas’s double misfortune a week earlier. Russell peeled off into the pits for the fourth time on a day when he only needed to come in once, and Perez was left in the clear.
Perez’s big win
Racing Point have been threatening to pull off a big result all season. They came close in Istanbul, but were undone Stroll’s tyre troubles and the brilliance of Hamilton.
This win was a vindication for Perez, who has known for three months he does not have an F1 deal for next year after his team chose to replace him with Sebastian Vettel. His last hope of remaining on the grid next year rests with Red Bull, and perhaps this will persuade him he is the driver they need for 2021.
Ocon, who preceded Perez’s departure from the same team two years earlier, took a similarly satisfying career best result with second, Renault’s best finish for 10 years.
Stroll, who has laboured to add to his points tally for several races, returned to the rostrum in third. But having seen his team mate come from the back to win, he had to draw an obvious conclusion about his own result.
“A part of me is a little bit disappointed as I think I could have won the race,” he said. “I went a little bit deep [at the] pit exit after my pit stop and Esteban managed to get by me and then I just didn’t have the pace. I locked up and Sergio went by.
“I just didn’t really have the pace to overtake Esteban so I got held up there a little bit. But all in very happy for the team, it’s an unbelievable result. First and third is exactly what we needed for the championship.” The team’s points bonanza lifts them to a valuable third in the standings, 10 clear of McLaren with one race remaining.
Sainz was next home, leading a string of drivers who passed Bottas as his tyres faded at the end of the race: Ricciardo, Alexander Albon (who was stunned that Perez, who he spent much of the race sparring with, had won) and Daniil Kvyat (who unluckily pitted just before the Safety Car).
Russell collected the bonus point for fastest lap as he recovered to ninth behind his team mate. The stewards’ decision to spare him any punishment meant he at least collected the first points of his career. Three points which would be priceless to Williams were a meagre reward for his efforts as a Mercedes driver. He passed Lando Norris on the final lap, the McLaren driver taking the last point.
After a brilliant performance all weekend, Russell could justifiably feel furious that events beyond his control had conspired against him not once, but twice, in the course of a single race.
But he made his mark, and sent a clear message to Mercedes about his potential. Russell will have many more chances to win races. As things stand, Perez has only one.
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2020 Sakhir Grand Prix
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